Build a senior center and they will come.
That’s the idea behind the newly incorporated Bonita Senior Center, serving residents of Estero, Bonita Springs and North Naples.
Residents in these communities have an average age of 62, according to a demographic study completed in 2019 by Tom Felke, Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor of sociology and Estero resident.
“The influx of residents since then may change the exact average,” said Felke, “but the fact remains the same—a lot of seniors are moving to Southwest Florida, and the available services are scattered and mostly non-centralized.”
Change is coming. The Bonita Senior Center aims to fill this need.
Over 110 members have found their central source for camaraderie, health and wellness resources, activities, dining fun and, according to Estero resident Barbara Nolan, “an escape from the isolation that aging might bring.”
For now, the center operates out of space at Hope Lutheran Church in Bonita Springs. Sheila Morales, faith community nurse for the church, serves as the one-woman senior source.
“If I don’t have the information, I’ll find it,” she assures senior center members.
Morales has created a busy calendar of activities for seniors while building enthusiastic membership since 2019 with annual dues of just $25.
“I find that Sheila has created an atmosphere where it’s warm and personable—a place where she knows your name and that of other members. We meet new people and try new things,” shared Nolan.
Member interests drive activities, from organic farming to entertaining lunches to exercises for living with arthritis.
“I’m a very curious person and always checking the paper for things to do. I ran across the senior center and have been an active member since,” said Nolan, who recently enjoyed learning about the organic garden at Shangri-La Springs on a local adventure with other seniors.
The center must be doing something right. Even the outdoor activities held at Leitner Park during the pandemic were well attended. Visits to Shangri–La Springs and the Bonita Wonder Gardens draw participation of up to 80 members.
Over 35 local agencies that meet senior goals and needs have given their support to the center in funding, planning and providing activities and resources. Since its start in late 2019, activities have included themes as diverse as Tai Chi, elder law, health tips and screenings, card games, local field trips and the ever-popular monthly “FUNch Bunch” (lunch with live entertainment).
Morales will put any activity on the calendar that has enough interest. Nolan praises her as “the heart and soul of the whole organization.”
Simple get-togethers draw a diverse crowd of seniors who enjoy the camaraderie.
“People of all backgrounds and senior ages are looking for information and activities that increase the quality of their life today,” Morales said. “But they also seek some simplicity in finding what they need and often a little guidance.”
Other local organizations offer programs and activities of interest to senior citizens. Finding the right activity at the right time, however, may seem like a maze.
The Estero Recreation Center offers senior basketball, senior volleyball and several types of classes for adults of all ages, including various crafts, tap dancing, ceramics, gentle flow yoga, line dancing, table tennis, Tae kwon do and more.
South County Regional Library also offers many programs and activities. And seniors can check out the many health and wellness activities offered at the Healthy Living Center at Lee Health-Coconut Point, including disease-specific lectures, healthy cooking demonstrations and group exercise classes.
However, Felke observes, “A central location to meet the unique needs of the elderly is not evident locally and just began at the Bonita Senior Center.”
Morales and an active board are driving toward the “build it and they will come” vision, seeking grants and donations to secure a more permanent home. The senior center is also seeking a leader.
“Our energetic and devoted board is seeking…an executive director to take us beyond the embryonic stage,” said Board President Joe Gallagher. “We are seeking an executive director with skills in fundraising, grant writing and senior population knowledge.”
Board member Maureen Lorenz has sought support from government and civic agencies and she invites new volunteers from Estero to join the board.
“We have many members who enjoy the activities and also have great ideas and gifts to share from their past experiences,” Lorenz noted.
A true senior center offers a central source for education, senior resources, health information, activities and relief from isolation, boredom, food insecurity, anxiety and other issues that can plague older adults, especially those without support systems or the community knowledge to seek out solutions to their challenges.
“Information activities provide help to seniors totally unaware of many services available to make their lives better,” Lorenz said.
“The population growth in seniors without support systems for their aging changes is only creating a wider gap between services and those in need,” observed Felke. “Serving the local residents is a wise start, with transportation an unmet issue for the elderly. Proximity is important.”
Sometimes older adults might just want a comfortable chair and a new magazine to read away from their residence.
The Bonita Senior Center website says, “We aim to create community, with joy and purpose, to connect, nourish and love all seniors.” That includes activities leading to personal growth, improved health and enriching life experiences.
Lorenz and her husband particularly like the FUNch Bunch events with live music.
“Music targeted to our generation brings out the dancing shoes, the singing and the memories for a truly joyful experience,” she said.
Discover Bonita Senior Center happenings on their website, , connect on Facebook (search “Bonita senior center”) or call 239-399-4881 to join in the camaraderie and fun. Volunteers are always welcome.